Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Dana Barros, the ’94-95 Sixers, and the greatest performance that people forgot | Mike Sielski

The little point guard had one great season for the Sixers in the mid-1990s, and it should have given everyone a hint of how the NBA was changing.

Retired Sixers guard Dana Barros shoots around at the Dana Barros Basketball Club in Stoughton, Mass.
Retired Sixers guard Dana Barros shoots around at the Dana Barros Basketball Club in Stoughton, Mass.Read moreMaddie Malhotra

STOUGHTON, Mass. — On a Tuesday morning last month, Dana Barros sauntered into the multimillion-dollar basketball facility, with its two stories and five sparkling hardwood courts, that he opened here two years ago. Looming on the façade above the entrance, under the words DANA BARROS BASKETBALL CLUB, was a gigantic depiction of Barros himself, originally designed and sketched by his son Jordan, in an incandescent orange tank top and shorts, on the move, dribbling a ball with his left hand.

As the real Barros, 52, strode through the front doors, he carried a medium-size cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee — “I need to get a Dunkin’ Donuts sponsorship,” he said — and wore a gray hooded sweatshirt appropriate only for him; the same likeness was centered like a franchise insignia on his chest. Hey, if you’d had the season Barros did for the 76ers a quarter-century ago, you’d wear yourself on your sweatshirt, too.

A star at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, Mass., and at Boston College, Barros spent five of his 13 NBA seasons with the Celtics and remains a local hero here. He lives just a quarter-mile from the facility, the headquarters of his basketball club, which comprises 35 youth teams and more than 500 players. He worked as a television analyst on Celtics games, was an assistant coach on their 2007-08 championship team, and still consults for them.

The singular achievement of his playing career, though, happened not in Boston but during his two-year stint with the Sixers. Listed at 5-foot-11 but in reality at least an inch-and-a-half shorter, Barros in 1994-95 delivered an 82-game performance that ought to stand not merely as one of the best seasons of any Sixers player, but also as one that was ahead of its time in the history and evolution of NBA basketball. And it probably would, if circumstances and the passage of time hadn’t caused most people to forget about it completely.

“I would love to be part of this era,” he said in a conference room here, curling his right wrist as if he were shooting a basketball. “Just 15 years too early, man.”

‘I could have averaged 28 that year’

To put Barros’ 1994-95 season in its proper context, it’s best to begin with his statistics. He shot 49% from the field and 46% from three-point range, the third-best mark in the NBA. His 197 three-pointers were fourth-most, and he began a streak of 89 consecutive games in which he hit at least one three, a league record until Kyle Korver broke it in 2013.

He averaged 20.6 points a game despite taking just 14.2 shots a game. By comparison, Steph Curry averaged 14.2 shots during the 2010-11 season but scored just 18.6 points, and during the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons, Allen Iverson hoisted 25.5 and 27.5 shots per game, respectively.

Named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, Barros also ranked 11th in the league in assists per game, at 7.5, and he was so valuable to the Sixers that, according to the database Basketball Reference, he represented 10.5 offensive win shares for them. The only player responsible for more was the San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson, with 10.7. The difference, of course, was that Robinson was the star of a team that won 62 games. With the exception of Barros, the 1994-95 Sixers were as far from excellent as a team could be. They were the kind of bad that seems humorous and fun only in retrospect.

They went 24-58, part of a six-year stretch in which they failed to win more than 31 games in a season. Nineteen players appeared in at least one game for them. One of those players, journeyman Willie Burton, set the Spectrum single-game scoring record with 53 points in a victory over the Miami Heat, then explained his magical one-off night with two words: “Just hoopin’.” In his second season after the Sixers selected him second overall in the 1993 NBA draft, Shawn Bradley averaged 9.5 points and 8.0 rebounds and made no discernible improvement in his physical strength or basketball skills.

“It was chaos,” Barros said. “They would bring cheesecake into the shootaround to try to put weight on this dude, and he would be throwing up.”

Relishing the chance to start for the Sixers after backing up Gary Payton for four years with the Seattle SuperSonics, Barros grew concerned about his place in the rotation during the first round of the 1994 draft, when the Sixers used the 20th pick on another point guard, Texas’ B.J. Tyler. John Lucas, entering his first season as the Sixers’ head coach and a former point guard himself, wanted to mold Tyler into his image, and while Barros had been solid in 1993-94 — 13.3 points and 5.2 assists per game, 38% from three-point range — in his mind he had done little to make himself indispensable to a rebuilding team.

Barros needn’t have worried. Tyler lasted just 55 games in the NBA, his brief career summed up in one early-season incident, when Lucas huddled with his players during a timeout. “The next thing I know,” said Marc Zumoff, who was in his second season as the play-by-play voice on the team’s telecasts, “Luc is pointing toward our locker room, almost like a referee or an umpire throwing somebody out of a game. And B.J. Tyler starts walking forlornly toward our locker room. Something happened in the huddle, and Luc threw him out of the game. I’d never seen this before.”

By the end of the season’s first month, Lucas had resigned himself to giving Barros what Zumoff called “the forever green light.” Barros was not merely a standstill jump-shooter — in college, he had run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, and his vertical jump was measured at 43 inches — though shooting was his forte.

At Xaverian Brothers, he had been so small and slight as a freshman that he had to slingshot the basketball toward the hoop if he was outside the lane. But at the instruction and insistence of his coach, Don Mills, Barros was soon spending all his free time during the school day seated in a chair one foot in front of a basket, keeping his right elbow locked and tucked in tight as he flicked a ball up and through the hoop, practicing the same perfect form that he repeated again and again, like a twitchy habit, at the conference table.

“I didn’t have a rebounder,” he said. “If I couldn’t catch the ball, that means I was missing. That was a life-changer.”

Those factors — his shooting touch, his athleticism, the freedom that Lucas afforded him — melded into their ideal manifestation on March 14, 1995, at the Spectrum. In a 136-107 loss to the Houston Rockets, Barros made 21 of his 26 field-goal attempts, including six of eight from three-point range, and scored a career-high 50 points. Those 26 shots, an array of runners and layups and deep jumpers, were the most he took in any game that season.

“It was funny because Kenny Smith got two quick fouls in the first quarter,” Barros said, “and Sam Cassell comes into the game and says, ‘G—damn it, Kenny, you got me into this [crap]’ He was screaming at the bench. Every time I hit a shot, he’d scream at the bench, ‘G—damn it, Kenny, get your ass back in the game!’”

Today, it wouldn’t be unusual to give an undersized point guard carte blanche to pull up from 25 feet or more. This season, the average NBA team shoots more than 33 three-pointers a game; in 1994-95, it attempted 15 or so.

The style of basketball that, say, the Sixers and Celtics will play Thursday night in their matchup at TD Garden is barely recognizable compared to the league then, when conventional wisdom demanded that teams run their offenses through a dominant post player: Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, the postretirement iteration of Michael Jordan. “There were certain areas on the floor you were not allowed to shoot from unless it was desperation time,” said Fred Carter, the Sixers’ head coach in ’93-94. “Dana could shoot from those areas.” He just wasn’t inclined to, not with the impunity that Curry, James Harden, and other perimeter players enjoy these days.

“I played the right way,” Barros said. “I could have averaged 28 that year if I took the shots I didn’t take. When the guy was a foot away, I still could have shot it, but I waited until he was a foot and a half away. That’s just the way I’ve always played.”

The brightest light in a dark era

That season was a unicorn for Barros. He never had one like it before or again. A free agent in the summer of 1995, he would have considered re-signing with the Sixers, he said, had team owner Harold Katz not lowballed him with a contract offer of three years and $9 million.

Instead, he signed with the Celtics for six years and $19 million, even though they already had three point guards: Sherman Douglas, Dee Brown, and David Wesley. Because of injuries to his right ankle and back, he appeared in 80 games just twice over his final seven seasons.

Still, for a segment of Gen-Xers whose most familiar Sixers memories are of the years after Charles Barkley’s departure and before Iverson’s arrival, a fallow period that lacked even the long-term planning and hope of Sam Hinkie’s Process, Barros was the brightest light amid so much darkness. And his spectacular season should acquire a fresher appreciation 25 years later, given that he was a forerunner of the modern pro game.

A 93-second video, showing every basket he made during his 50-point night, can be found easily online. After Smith, now an analyst for TNT, mentioned Barros recently on Inside the NBA, Jordan Barros insisted that his father get his own Instagram account, so that Jordan’s friends would stop posting on his. Yo, man, Kenny gave your dad props on TV!

“At camps, the 10-year-old kids are like, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ ” Barros said, the conference room a clutter of AAU-tournament trophies and clear plastic bins stuffed with jerseys. “When they Google me, the first thing that comes up is that clip. YouTube saves all us older guys, man.”

Sometimes, usually at 11 in the morning three times a week, he comes to the facility to shoot for an hour or so, hovering around the three-point arc of Court 1 to background music, often from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. It’s an appropriate choice — a throwback to the 1990s, when both men were at their peaks in the practice of their crafts.

On Sundays, he plays pickup ball here, too, against men who are much younger than he is, including some who played Division I ball as recently as five or 10 years ago. “I had to set one rule,” he said, “no full-court pressing me.” It allows him to shoot from wherever he wants, but only when the guy closest to him is far enough away, only when it’s the right way to play.